The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

‘TWAS TWO WEEKS BEFORE CHRISTMAS

‘Twas two weeks before Christmas
And all through the land,
Retailers had sent forth
Their own marching band.

To drum up some business
And stir by their call
Each consumer to duty,
”Come down to the mall.”

We’ve got oodles of goodies
On sale – there’s no trick,
For surely you must have
The latest knack knick.

It was made in a land
Far away quite exotic,
But sadly about it
There’s nothing erotic.

But well made we can say
In a positive light.
It surely will last
Through at least Christmas night.

If not that then buy this
We’ve got more than enough,
Of goods with no value
For stockings to stuff.

Forget that old message,
Peace, love and joy.
The message of Christmas
That’s merely a ploy.
The true story’s about
Finding just the right toy.

“I’ve no money, alas.”
”Not a problem,” they say.
We’ve figured a way
For this junk you may pay.

Just say, “Charge it.”
We will, .
Have no fear, take no fright.
As the interest mounts day by day
And night by night.

So came Kia and Honda,
Chrysler, Nissan and Ford.
Their mission was clear
They were all of accord.

Beemers, Benzes were there
Some quite old and some new.
Intent on their purpose
They knew what to do.

To ransack and pillage
And leave the store bare.
To spend and spend more,
That was their sole care.

No great thought had gone into
Their buys made that day.
Nor how much at last,
The cost they would pay.

So they dashed away,
Dashed away,
Dashed away all.
And over the land
Came a dark eerie pall.

For the message of Christmas
Of peace and of joy
Is not just a gizmo
Or latest fad toy.

If we ask ourselves why
War and hatred exist,
Perhaps we should go back,
Examine our list.

No more cars, games or trinkets,
Just some kindness and soul.
Would go a long way
To make the world whole.

POETIC POLITICS

OZYMANDIAS

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on the lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

– Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shortly after the 2008 Presidential election I called my cable provider to ask whether I had been “auto-subscribed” to an expanded package which included the Obama station.  It seemed that scarcely a day went by that the new president didn’t have a news conference in which he would announce matters of great importance – such as, “Today’s Tuesday.”  It didn’t take long to identify a pattern that would repeat pretty much throughout the next four years.  Sadly, through no choice of my own, I was forced to watch these interruptions of regular programming – a clear violation of the Supreme Court’s interdiction against cruel and unusual punishment.

With the 2012 election the regular appearances continued, although at a blessedly slower pace.  And as we headed toward the 2014 election Obama had even less to say on air – perhaps taking a hint from his Democrat buds who certainly didn’t want him to campaign on their behalf – and in some cases refused to acknowledge that they either knew or had ever voted for him.

There are probably as many ways to interpret the results of this year’s election as there are people with political perspectives.  Despite the fact that all politics are supposed to be local, the nation swept Republicans into office in greater numbers in the House, switched control of the Senate and entrenched state governments with yet more GOP governors, including the states of Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois which have been Democrat strongholds for years.  For the first time in my voting history, I actually cast a ballot for a candidate for Congress – who won – defeating a freshman Democrat in a district that is, at the least, liberal leaning.

Perhaps the results stemmed from the fact  that the majority of Americans, in poll after poll, believe the country is heading in the wrong direction; have antipathy to President Obama; or generally reject the climate of uncertainty and ineptitude which have been either tolerated or promulgated, depending on your political affiliation, during the past six years.  Even during the turmoil of the Vietnam War, as divisive as that was, I don’t remember a climate where Americans felt as hostilely towards one another as they do today.  What should be most disappointing for those who voted enthusiastically for Obama is that, rather than serving as the president of the country, whether intentionally or otherwise, he has set himself up as the president and leader only of those Americans who accept his philosophic view – and that in a rather imperious manner.

Yesterday’s post-election press conference offered the president the opportunity to recognize that he and his party were thoroughly repudiated by the electorate and that it was perhaps time for a sea change.  Instead, he took the time to point out that two thirds of the eligible electorate didn’t bother to go out and vote – as though that proved that his policies are just fine – it’s just that two thirds of us were too busy getting tattoos or having their nails done to express their opinion.  This does not bode well for the next two years.

When we’re children it’s understandable that not having developed a solid sense of self-worth, we might, if confronted with the fact that we’ve made a mistake, deny either that we committed the offense or find an excuse why it wasn’t our fault.  It’s “the dog ate my homework” syndrome.  Most of us, however, realize that we can only push those excuses so far and so often.  And ultimately, like the little boy who cried wolf, at some point people, even the most generous of us, will simply cease listening either to the speaker or the excuse.  And we categorize people who continue that behavior with a term – pathological liars.

This is not a new phenomenon.  St. Paul addressed the issue in I Corinthians 13:11:

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Maybe it’s time we all grew up.

KEATS AND THE TAX MAN

“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk …”

Beginning of First Stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale”

– John Keats

Senior year in high school and the public speaking contest was two days away.  My English teacher encouraged me to participate and I agreed.  The only problem was that I hadn’t selected a piece for recitation.  In my (limp) defense, during the three weeks prior to the actual competition I had considered a number of pieces but had, for various reasons, rejected all of them.  And now the deadline was looming and my only defense for my lack of preparation was that I had been working on the third movement of the Mendelssohn First Piano concerto.

I browsed through the books in the family library and happened to pull out a volume of John Keats’ works.  I came across “Ode to a Nightingale” and was fascinated by the beauty of his imagery in the poem.  I decided, “This is it.  This is the piece for which I was looking.”  So I set about memorizing it.

As it turned out, I lost the competition, coming in second.  My rendition of Keats was defeated by a soliloquy from “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”  I chalked this up to the fact that Eugene O’Neill was in vogue – although I must admit that the chap who delivered this oration was nothing short of captivating.  Only for a fleeting moment did the thought that if I had spent a bit more time in preparation, I might have carried the day for John Keats.  Responsibility – what a burden.

This poem came to mind yesterday.  I opened my mail and saw that I had received a letter from the California Franchise Tax Board.  They are apparently the people who collect California Income Tax as I learned when I perused the letter.  In it they claimed that I had an unpaid balance due them in the amount of $891.00, plus penalties and interest all of which totaled $961.65.  All of this was for the tax year 2013.  I thought that was rather strange since I have never lived in California, haven’t visited the state for about thirty years and certainly had no earned income which derived from any employment in that state.  Rather than procrastinate as I had with my public speaking project (I am trainable), I decided to have a cup of coffee and take the bull (or if you prefer the bully) by the horns – and call the toll free number listed on the form letter.

The opening line of this notice began as follows:

“Our records show you owe a balance.  We previously billed you for the balance, which remains unpaid.”   Since I had received no such previous notification, I presumed this was merely step one in the “intimidation” process that most tax agencies normally consider the way to conduct business.  This was confirmed as I read the notice’s second paragraph.

If we do not receive your balance payment in full within 30 days from the notice date, we may take collection action against you, such as file and record a Notice of State Tax Lien against your property and garnish a portion of your wages.”  Warmer words were never penned by poet laureate or bulbous bureaucrat.

I sighed as I dialed the number.  It was not a question of how difficult it would be to speak to a live person but how many hurdles I would have to leap to do so.  It appears that whoever designed the California FTB’s automated answering system holds an advanced degree in telephonic obfuscation.  There was no option given to dial “0” for operator or anyone resembling anything human.  “Perhaps they, like their federal counterparts at the FCC are too absorbed looking at pornography to deal with the tax paying public,” I thought.

Having found that selecting option “1” for individual taxpayers and that led me to a circular recitation of the five options available to me, I decided to try option “2” which is reserved for tax preparers and professionals.  Interspersed with my time on hold, a total of twenty two minutes, were various veiled threats about what this agency could do in terms of seizure of property if the deadbeat on the phone didn’t pay up.  As I don’t speak Spanish, I don’t know if this same threat was repeated in that language.  For all I know they were telling the Hispanic caller a great recipe for a taco salad – or how to sign up for California’s various generous welfare programs.

Finally, I was connected to a soft spoken man with an Indian sub-continent accent, making our exchange all the more challenging.  He identified himself by name, Mear and I off-handedly asked if I were speaking with him in Sacramento.  He assured me that, rather than New Delhi was where he was located.  I was going to speak the one phrase of Hindi that I know, “Opka bagicha bahooth sundar hai,” but I couldn’t find a way to work telling him that “You have a lovely garden” into the conversation.

I explained that this notice, contrary to its statement that it was  a follow up was my first such notice.  I further explained that since I had never derived any income from or in the state of California, this notice was obviously intended for someone else.  Mear immediately and without hesitation said, “You are obviously the victim of ‘identity theft.’”  (They have a form to resolve this sort of problem – so I suspect, particularly in light of yesterday’s announcement that Russia has been able to hack into nearly two billion user names and passwords – that this happens all the time.)

In addition to completing FTB 3552 (Identity Theft Form), Mear explained that I needed to make out a police report, make a copy of my Social Security card as well as copy my Driver’s License or other state issued ID.  When I had all that information gathered, I was to call back and they would give me the FAX number to which that all should be sent.

It naturally occurred to me that once upon a time, Social Security cards were issued with the inscription, “Not for Identification Purposes.”  Apparently they are adequate for identity fraud and may be used for that purpose.  And with all the brouhaha about Voter Identification, you can’t even speak with a tax collection agency until you have verified that you are who you claim you are by presenting a valid form of government issued picture identification, but in many states can vote.

Being a curious person I wondered why someone would file a phony tax return using someone else’s social, name and address if the return showed that there was a liability due.  I asked Mear how much income I had purportedly reported on this return – and I expressed my confusion about why someone would file such a return if they were not receiving a refund.  Of course, dutifully protecting my sensitive financial information, Mear said he could not give me any information until after they had received my fax.  In fact, he wouldn’t even give me the fax number until I had assembled the required documents.  I have to call back in order to get that number – but now at least I know how to beat their system.

My guess is that someone in California probably used this information to get some kind of government benefit during year 2013.  That is, of course, just a guess, but I can think of no other reasonable alternative.  Hopefully when I get all the required documents together later today and after the California FTB has had an appropriate amount of time to shuffle those around, I will get an answer – although I think the likelihood of this is about fifty/fifty.

In the meantime, I can console myself with a recitation of Keats’, “Ode to a Nightingale.”  The good news is that in my fervent effort to memorize that poem for the public speaking contest, I still remember all eight stanzas.

“Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.”

Keats and the tax man.  Given a choice, I’ll stick with the poet.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE INDIFFERENT

When “Elmer Gantry” was first published, it created a furor that rippled through the American conscience and through our churches.  The portrayal of a lecherous minister so offended the typical American churchgoer that author Sinclair Lewis received several written death threats.

The message of Christianity is peace.  That message has often been lost to those who claim to be adherents – as must have been the case of those who “in God’s name” threatened the writer’s life.

As we look through twenty-one centuries of history, the church often appears to us to be less a home for saints than a hospital for sinners.  And some of those sinners are in serious need of life support to sustain them.

My father attended church on a regular basis.  But I think that I should hardly describe him as a zealot.  On more than one occasion I heard him say, “Religion has been the cause of more wars than anything else.”  But he would continue by asking the rhetorical question, “Can you imagine, if we didn’t have religion and some belief in a higher moral justice, how barbaric mankind might be?”

There are many people of faith who follow and practice their beliefs in quiet dignity.  We do not hear of them.  They are not the subjects of the evening news and the tabloids take no interest in their lives.  Good new is, in essence, no news.

But bad news is news and bad news sells.  And it would be hard to deny that even more so than when “Elmer Gantry” was published, there is a great deal of bad news to report about the clergy of this country.

I needn’t detail here the list of immoral acts that some clergy have committed as the media have done an excellent job of reporting on those.  Or have they?  Well, they’ve done an excellent job in covering the acts of pedophilia of Roman Catholic priests in a number of American dioceses.  And they’ve monitored the inefficient response of the diocesans in either attempting to cover up those crimes either by transferring the priests in question or by ignoring the problem completely, hoping that it would go away on its own.

Those responses by the hierarchy are both insufficient, ignorant and morally suspect.  But if we didn’t intuitively know that the media have taken great pains to point that out to us – over and over.  Perhaps they consider that their rightful role as the source for reporting on the “new moral justice.”

But this “new moral justice” seems to apply only occasionally and with specificity – targeted not at the clergy “in toto” but selectively.  And interestingly, one might argue, that there are racial overtones both to the reporting and to the lack of it.

If you look historically at both the white and black communities, it would be accurate to say that black Americans saw in religion the hope for a life in a future world far better than they knew in this one and attended their churches more regularly and perhaps with greater fervor than their white counterparts.

The focus of black churches lay more personally in the person of the minister conducting the service than with the priest at the altar.  Any priest would do to execute a “valid liturgy” – but within the black churches people came to hear the preachin’ and to be roused by the Holy Spirit.  No self-respecting black church did not have an adequate supply of “fallin’ out fans” on hand to accommodate the ladies of the congregation when, moved by the Word of God, they came near to fainting.

There is no question that the minister in a black community not only represented an example by which congregants should model their lives but was one of the few success stories to which the impoverished members of his community could look to give them hope.  In today’s parlance, he was a “Big Kahuna.”

If you subscribe to my theory of “selective coverage” by the media it should not surprise you that the scandals which were extensively reported among the more conservative (translation:“White”) churches received that coverage and the appropriate amount of bashing.

But in the more “liberal” wings of the black churches, the misdeeds of ministers have been briefly reported and quietly buried.  Black church goers have, like so many others, been led to the “liberal altar of free stuff” and have greedily drunk from the Kool Aid of a false communion that has been consecrated by their own clergy.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, an aide to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was at one time a fierce and sincere advocate for the black community.  Early in his career he recognized that legalized abortion was little more than a license to minimize the number of black Americans and was, in essence, selective population control.  His opposition to abortion was so fervent that in 1975 he planned on drafting  a Constitutional Amendment banning the practice.

This is a different Jesse Jackson than we see today.  He has had to endure the embarrassment of admitting that he fathered an illegitimate child – an epidemic problem in the black community – but in his defense, he at least made the effort to pay the mother child support.  And he has had to deal with the shame that his son, my former Congressman, now awaiting sentencing together with his wife, brought on the family for the misappropriation of $750,000 in funds raised for his election campaigns.

It was a different Jesse Jackson who in 1969 realized that when he spoke of “us and them” he was not framing that remark as a statement about blacks and whites, because he was a man who preached about reconciliation between the races, but who was talking about those who had economic security and those who lacked it.

“When we change the race problem into a class fight between the haves and the have-nots, then we are going to have a new ball game.”

The truth is that whether or not we agreed with Mr. Jackson back in the ‘60’s, it was hard to argue with his honesty.  Given the one hundred eighty degree changes in his views (and this might be surprising as most conservatives and a fair number of ministers believe that truth is immutable), it is hard to ascribe much relevance to what Rev. Jackson has to say now.

One of Jesse Jackson’s colleagues when they came together in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was the Rev. Al Sharpton.  Sharpton does not have the baggage of changing his opinions as does the Rev. Mr. Jackson.  He is now and always has seen race as the basis of every inequity which has ever occurred throughout American history.

Sharpton was ordained a Pentecostal minister at the age of ten.  It was at this time that his father abandoned Sharpton’s mother and their children to have an affair with Sharpton’s half sister.

Over the years of his career, Sharpton has, through his National Action Network, promoted organized demonstrations in response to incidents which have occurred throughout America (and most frequently in his native city of New York) where he believes the American judicial system has failed its black citizens.  Of course, the most notable of these has been his recent effort to pressure the Justice Department into further prosecuting one George Zimmerman.

But if we look at the issues that this now liberal Baptist minister has taken on, there is one thing that the objective observer must conclude.  It is that in virtually all of the cases that Mr. Sharpton has championed, there has been no evidence of racial motivation nor has there been any evidence of racially motivated law-enforcement  neglecting the rights of our black citizens.

At some point, we all need to re-read the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and I would offer that to Mr. Sharpton as a summer reading project as well.

Robert Browning penned the words:

“God’s in his Heaven —
All’s right with the world!”

Those either must have been happier days.  Or perhaps the poet’s love for Elizabeth Barrett gave him a rosier view of the world than what most of us held.

The reality that we confront, because we have adopted the morality of secularism, is that in so many ways the people now occupying planet Earth appear to be more dysfunctional than ever.  We have thrown off the old standards and have eagerly stood hours in line to sign up to take the oath that we will adhere to the new ones.  They are far simpler to comply with as there are none.  We shouldn’t be surprised at the results.

Maybe Dad was right.

“Can you imagine, if we didn’t have religion and some belief in a higher moral justice, how barbaric mankind might be?”

Unfortunately, I think we’re all finding out the answer to that question.

INVICTUS

I remember the trepidation with which I faced taking my SAT exam.  As I saw it, my whole future depended on how I performed on this test.  I was truly fearful – wanting to do my best – and not wanting to disappoint my parents and grandmother.  This was a lot of responsibility for a 16-year old.

I was to take the exam on Saturday.  I realized that I had a decent vocabulary – one of the things that would be tested – and that my math skills were excellent.  I simply had to put aside my fear and allow the years of quality education  to flow through me and on to the answer sheet.  I needed to calm down – confident in my abilities.

So I decided that rather than spending the day worrying about what tomorrow would bring I should do something to relieve my anxiety.  I found an anthology of poetry among my parents’ library and happened to turn to the following poem:

INVICTUS

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley

The Friday that I read this poem I knew nothing about its author.  I do remember a sense of overwhelming comfort and confidence about my exam the next day as I read and re-read it.  I went to my Encyclopedia to find out a little about the poet who had penned this beautiful piece.

Henley is best remembered for this poem – supposedly written after his left leg was amputated – the result of the tuberculosis of the bone from which he had suffered since he was 12 years old.  He was a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson and was purportedly the basis for that author’s character Long John Silver because of the peg that was inserted in place of his missing limb.

At a time in which there were handicapped people but no handicapped accommodations to assist them – I can only imagine the difficulty of getting through the day to do day challenges that each of us faces.   After learning more about the author, this poem took on even more significance for me.

I cannot say whether it was because I had received an excellent education, reading the poem, “Invictus” or both, but I did very well on the SAT exams.  And to this day I hold strong to the belief that,

“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”

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